Teaching Kids Good Sportsmanship

With kids starting soccer at 3 and swim team at 5, teaching good sportsmanship is more important than ever. "Forty million kids play youth sports, and especially for girls, the numbers are sharply up," says Joel Fish, Ph.D., author of 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent and the director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia.


Why Sportsmanship Matters

Teaching good sportsmanship with a post-game high-five
Cavan Images / Iconica / Getty Images

This means a greater emphasis on winning, says Fish, but also offers an opportunity to teach sportsmanship early and often. And understanding how to be a good sport is one of the biggest life lessons kids can learn from sports.

"The best time to instill values is when kids are younger," says Rob Gotlin, DO, author of Dr. Rob's Guide to Raising Fit Kids. "Parents often don't realize how easy it really is to instill the values of sportsmanship," he says. For kids—especially younger ones, ages 8 and under—the goals of youth sports should be physical activity and social interaction. "If we can remember this reality check on what sports is all about, we've laid the groundwork" for good sportsmanship, says Dr. Gotlin.


Start Young: Sportsmanship for Kids 8 and Under

Even if—as is the practice in many sports leagues for little kids—there are no official winners or losers, having teams and uniforms introduces the idea of competition. So it's extra important that parents and coaches keep the emphasis on having fun, getting exercise, and playing together. Dr. Gotlin runs a youth basketball league and insists that players shake hands both before and after games. He also recommends that kids, coaches, and parents start the game with a group meeting to go over rules and remind everyone to just play and have a good time. If you won't be keeping score, let the kids know—and explain why, says Dr. Fish.

At this age, low-pressure team sports are the best. Being on the spot on the pitcher's mound or foul line is too much scrutiny for a young child, says Dr. Gotlin. Plus, in a sport like baseball, kids often spend too much time waiting around—and standing still. When they play soccer, they have to keep moving! No matter the type of sport your child plays, look for a league and a coach that emphasizes fun and fitness while de-emphasizing winning and losing; all team members should have plenty of opportunities to play and receive lots of positive feedback for their efforts.


Keep a Cool Head: Sportsmanship for Kids Ages 8-12

As kids approach puberty, tempers begin to flare—on the field and on the sidelines. In the abstract, it's easy to agree on the basic principles of sportsmanship: respect for teammates, opponents, and the game; graceful winning and losing. To impart these values, coaches (and parents) can use a combination of education (teaching kids in a language they understand), positive peer pressure, and consequences or policies (such as a system of warnings for broken rules followed by suspension from the practice or game).

Even with a firm foundation like this, following through is not always easy in the heat of the moment. So both parents and players need to know how to predict and prevent blow-ups. In his book, Dr. Fish outlines a three-step plan:

  1. Know your own attitudes about winning and losing, teamwork and competition. If you're an especially competitive person, you'll have to work harder to control your emotions.
  2. Know your triggers. "If I see a coach speaking harshly to my child, that pushes a button in me," says Dr. Fish. For other parents, triggers might include a perceived bad call from the referee or a feeling that an opponent is taking advantage of your child. Kids might be set off by making a mistake (such as striking out).
  3. Know how to calm down. Have a game plan for what to do when one of those triggers sets off an emotional response. A parent might have to walk away from the sidelines for a moment. A child could ask a teammate to remind her to take a deep breath or "shake it off."

Teach Respect and Confidence: Sportsmanship for Teens

In high school, kids are acutely aware of winning, losing, and their own performance, and that can spell problems for good sportsmanship. "Whenever there is more pressure for results, that increases the chances kids are going to do what they need to do in order to win," says Dr. Fish. "They are more likely to cross the line, taunting another player or fudging a rule."

If a player makes a mistake, he often loses focus. "Success breeds confidence and vice versa," says Dr. Gotlin. So positive reinforcement is still important now, as is a strong emphasis on discipline and values. Adults need to take the lead. "We need to teach from day one: When you step on the field, court, or pitch, you must have respect for the game and all the competitors equally, just like you see in martial arts with the respect for the dojo."

Parents also need to watch their own mindset, says Dr. Gotlin. "Parents want to see their kid stealing a base or getting an extra hit. It's the adult world poisoning the kids' minds. We need to fix ourselves first and then instill values in our kids." The message you want to impart: "I am here to see you compete and work on your skills."

Emphasize what you can and can't control: Sportsmanship is a choice. "There are all kinds of forces out there that parents and coaches can't control," says Dr. Fish. "I can't control what ESPN says or what the other team is doing. But I can teach my kid the importance of playing by the rules, shaking the hands of the opponent, helping him up if he falls—teaching him that even if his opponent doesn't do that, he can still do it because it's the right thing to do."


Find a Coach That Teaches Sportsmanship

Before you enroll your child in a youth sports league or school team, check out its philosophy on sportsmanship. Ask:

  • How does the league teach sportsmanship? What are its policies about keeping score, trash-talking (by players or parents), encounters with opponents, and discipline?
  • How is playing time determined—by talent, seniority, effort in practice? Or is it divided equally among all players?
  • What are the coach’s goals for the team? Is he really gung-ho about winning, or is the aim to introduce the sport? What about encouraging physical activity or social interaction?

There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers here; a lot depends on your child's age and temperament. But if you're unsatisfied with the answers you get, try to find another option—or at least be aware of what you're getting into, and teach values to your child on your own.

If you're unhappy with a coach's performance midway through a season, avoid confronting him or her at a practice or game. Schedule a meeting at a neutral site and time, include other parents if you can, and of course, be respectful of the coach.


Tailor Sportsmanship Teachings to Your Child's Personality

Knowing your child's temperament helps you find the most effective ways to teach sportsmanship and values. Kids break down into four main personality types, says Dr. Fish: emotional, conscientious, aggressive, and social. (While most kids will have a combination of a few of these, usually one dominates.) If you can identify which one your child is, then you know what you most need to work on when you teach sportsmanship:

  • Emotional: Focus on teaching him how to calm down and lighten up. Help him notice how his body reacts when he's upset (clenched muscles, shallow breathing). Brainstorm ways to respond (counting to 10, deep breaths, a brisk walk).
  • Conscientious: Help her differentiate between striving for perfection and perfectionism. Talk about setting positive goals for how to improve, instead of allowing too much focus on the negative.
  • Aggressive: Make consequences clear. Show him where the line is, and what the response will be if he crosses it. (Then follow up if he does break a rule.)
  • Social: Use peer pressure to your advantage. Stress the value of cooperating with her teammates, and remind her that they can help her stay positive if she's feeling down.
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